Director: Lee Seok-Hun
Writer: Cheon Seong-Il, Choi Yi-Young
Cast: Kim Nam-Gil, Son Ye-Jin, Yu Hae-Jin, Lee Kyung-Young, Oh Dal-Su, Kim Tae-Woo, Park Cheol-Min, Shin Jeong-Geun, Kim Won-Hae, Jo Dal-Hwan, Jo Hee-Bong, Jeong Seong-Hwa, Sully, Lee Yi-Kyung
Running Time: 130 min.
By Kyle Warner
Sometimes a movie surprises you. As I sat down to watch the South Korean adventure The Pirates, I expected a silly headache of a movie that existed just to cash-in on the popular Disney franchise Pirates of the Caribbean (the trailers definitely seemed to suggest as much). And while Pirates of the Caribbean was clearly an influence both creatively and financially in the making of this film, The Pirates manages to bring enough energy and style to make itself stand on its own. It’s a silly movie, but it possesses an addictive lunacy that slowly grew on me.
The story goes like this: a gray whale swallows the Royal Seal during an important time in Korea’s history. It’s absolutely imperative that the Royal Seal be recovered in order to maintain relations with China’s Ming Dynasty. So begins a rat race that pits pirates, bandits, and the military against one another in order to get to the whale first and reap the rewards. Basically it’s Pirates of the Caribbean meets Moby Dick.
Leading the pirates is Yeo-wol (Ye-jin Son), a female warrior that receives the respect of her crew because she clearly cares for them all. Opposing Yeo-wol is her former captain Soma (Kyeong-yeong Lee), who at one point tried to slaughter half his crew in order to appease an official. Elsewhere in the story is a bandit chief named Crazy Tiger (Nam-gil Kim) who has caught wind of the whale chase and wants the treasure for him and his men. The bandit chief also has his own nemesis in the form of a former ally named Mo (Tae-woo Kim). As one would expect, the baddies eventually team up, while Crazy Tiger and Yeo-wol also reach common ground in the fight.
Ultimately the plot is just a setup for crazy stuff to happen. The Pirates works as a series of gags, over-the-top performances, and a few well-made action sequences. It’s a bright and colorful adventure, and director Seok-hoon Lee (Dancing Queen) infuses the film with a rapid pace, which is good because it never lets the audience stop and think of more practical ways for our characters to achieve their goals. There’s a lot of stupidity on display in The Pirates, but for the most part I think you’ll be laughing along.
One of my favorite sequences includes the bandits harpooning a great white shark, which turns their little boat into a speedboat that cruises across the surface, causing all other sea captains to look on with jealousy. Also fun is a chase through a market that soon results in a coastal town’s near destruction as a giant wooden wheel breaks off its hinges (the sequence reminds me of the car busting through the shantytown in Jackie Chan’s Police Story – however, this sequence is less impressive as it’s done largely with CGI). The film is at its best in these big sequences, as the writing and directing sets up the series of events in an amusing way. Like some jokes, you may see the punchline coming, but at least it delivers what it promises.
Hae-jin Yoo (Public Enemy) starts off as the film’s most annoying character but quickly becomes its funniest and most relatable. He plays a member of the pirates who abandoned ship, joined the bandits, but can’t seem to fit in anywhere. When the bandits join the whale chase, he is looked to as the authority on the ocean, and Yoo shines during these moments. He plays the idiot playing the expert, and because his audience is even more ignorant than him the humor really connects. Cheol-min Park (Sector 7) and Dal-su Oh (Old Boy) are reliable in bringing the laughs in their supporting roles, and Kyeong-yeong Lee (Kundo) does a good job lending some drama to the proceedings in the role of the primary villain.
It’s too bad the two heroic leads largely disappoint by comparison. Ye-jin Son was very good in the 2004 romance A Moment to Remember, but her work in The Pirates is weak. There is no depth to her performance and she shows only a limited range of emotions, often staring blankly back at her co-stars. She looks bored with everything and everyone. Her counterpart Nam-gil Kim fairs better, if only slightly. At times Kim is very likable as the bandit chief, but too often his performance falters as he tries to channel Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow. On that note, I’d also like to point out that this is not all Kim’s failing; the director should’ve known better. When you openly mimic a well-known and well-liked character, you open yourself up to comparisons. You can say whatever you like about Sparrow in the Caribbean sequels, but in his first appearance the Sparrow character was one of the most original heroes for a blockbuster in a long time. Sparrow’s a goofy oddball, but there’s a moral ambiguity to the character, and you never quite know where you stand with him. He’s a scallywag—a pirate through and through. By comparison, Crazy Tiger’s goofy and true to his men and… not much else. Giving Crazy Tiger some of the same mannerisms in certain scenes makes the comparison inevitable, which only serves to make The Pirates’ weaknesses more evident.
Also frustrating is the film’s inconsistent tone. For much of the film, The Pirates operates pretty well as either a comedy or a breezy action/adventure. However, at times it slips into darker territory where it doesn’t really belong, and these scenes really take the viewer out of the film. One such sequence shows a villain massacre a fishing village just so that he has some corpses to take the blame for a pirate’s crime. More striking (in this reviewer’s opinion, at least), is the violence dished out on the whale. Here you are laughing along and then a whale gets a harpoon in the back and there’s blood everywhere. It’s not the sort of thing you want to see when you’ve just cut away from a bit of comedy.
All in all, I think there’s enough to recommend The Pirates to curious filmgoers. Definitely consider it as a rental. It’s not as good as Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl, but it is better than at least a couple of that film’s sequels. Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, the most recent and arguably the weakest of that series, earned over $1 billion dollars worldwide. Clearly a great many people enjoy the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, and I’d be willing to bet that a good handful of them would enjoy The Pirates as well.
Kyle Warner’s Rating: 7/10